Zoë Tanner & Celia Matthews: InstallerSPOTLIGHT Series

The InstallerSHOW Spotlight Series: Zoë Tanner & Celia Matthews
In association with Grundfos

Throughout this series, our host Jess Shanahan is profiling influential figures in the industry and hearing their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities they have faced in their careers. Watch or listen to the full interviews below.

For the last in our InstallerSPOTLIGHT series, where we are sharing positive stories of women in the industry, we have double the insight.

Celia Matthews is a qualified plumber and the founder of SNG Publishing, which offers a wide range of resources and events for learners in construction and engineering, while Zoë Tanner is SNG’s Managing Director. SNG’s mission is to nurture a confident workforce with top tier resources to help them tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

For Celia, the inspiration for a move into plumbing some 20 years ago was a dripping tap.

“I was working in London for a big publishing company, and each time I went home, I was aware of a tap dripping all the time. I thought ‘Better call a plumber.’ After giving that look which you recognise as being ‘it’s going to be expensive’, he basically said that, if he unpacked the tap, it would explode. So he wanted to give me a quote for a new bathroom!”

After politely declining and paying a callout fee, Celia found herself wondering why a leaky tap would suddenly explode. Whereas many people would settle for a bit of armchair Googling, Celia was more determined and so she called around colleges in search of an answer.

That got her interested in the subject – but clearly, it also got the college interested in an enthusiastic student too: “I asked about maybe a DIY course but the college was very interested in the fact that I was female and wanted to persuade me to do the full qualification. I wasn’t quite sure about that, but I had a look at the syllabus and I found it really, really interesting.”

There hadn’t been any option like this for her at school, so she took to the new subject with enthusiasm – and not only did Celia do her level 2 in plumbing, but she added a level 3 in heating and ventilation too.

“I did many of the short courses, such as energy efficiency for domestic heating, sanitation, and water regs… so the full shebang!”

Her time at college showed her that there wasn’t much support around finding work in the industry – or to build confidence: “That’s the system, I think. My lecturers were fantastic. But I wondered if maybe this was something that I could potentially help with, and that’s how SNG was born.”

Zoë, by contrast, had a varied career in telecoms and financial services before she found herself in the midst of the heating trade via her work in a digital marketing agency.

“That’s how I met Celia,” she says, “We kept bumping into each other at trade shows. And then I came in to do a pitch for her because my employer at the time was wanting to work with more of an apprentice-based audience.”

But Celia had other ideas: “I just thought ‘you need to come and work for me’,” says Celia, “You just had the same vision.”

Once she had heard the story behind the HIP and Sparks magazines, Zoë realised that they were indeed on the same page: “I completely believe in the importance of supporting, encouraging, and inspiring the next generation. No-one had ever asked me ‘Have you thought about becoming a plumber or an electrician?’ Actually, my careers advisor at school told me I should be a history teacher because I like to talk and I am good with dates and numbers! But why are we typecasting people at 15 or 16 when actually their whole career journey should be a verb not a noun.”

The problem in schools is partly human nature they believe – the careers advice is being given predominantly by teachers who have all experienced a very similar path via A-Levels and degrees and so that is what they are going to talk most confidently about.

“The good thing is that there are now some fantastic education professionals out there who are asking ‘Have you thought about an apprenticeship? And the language is changing and the opportunities are definitely starting to open up, but I would say there’s still a lot of work to be done. It has certainly moved forward massively compared to when I went to college, where I was the only female on the course. It was quite isolating and uncomfortable at times.”

Like some of our other Spotlight subjects, Celia points to the influence of skills competitions in encouraging women – and she doesn’t just mean the ones that HIP and Sparks run: “I got an email the other day from someone in the accountancy industry who is running their own competitions, as a way to demonstrate the opportunity.”

The genesis of HIP’s Female Skills Competition came after hearing from colleges around the country – their female learners don’t want to enter a mixed competition if they are going to be the only woman there. “They are already isolated enough at college,” says Celia. “As we already have the mixed gender competition, we can create a platform for the females – to develop their skills; to build their confidence; to become part of a community; and then take the next step to go into our central competition.”

And the approach must be working, because the number of female participants in both the HIP and Sparks Learner of the Year has doubled in 2024.

“I think it’s a massive credit to the colleges to really be showing the opportunities that are available and giving that added level of support to get the best people into the industry regardless of gender,” adds Zoë.

Celia acknowledges that things have changed since her days in college when it comes to the physical demands of the job. “When I was bending 22mm pipe, I found it very difficult using the pipe bender, and my lecturer suggested putting my whole body weight onto it? But actually, I just lifted off the floor! But there were plenty of lads who struggled with 22mm pipe too. Now we can use vices, and I actually have an extension I can add on to my pipe bender, which gives the leverage. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard graft when a radiator can weigh 50 kg – but it is hard work for both guys and girls.”

Zoë believes that changing the perception of women in trades should go hand in hand with improving accessibility: “We know that there are a number of women coming into the trades as second careers, because actually they can then have more flexibility to have a work/life balance and have the family support that they want, which is incredibly empowering.”

Celia adds that the skills competitions provide the valuable benefit of showing role models to the learners and giving them confidence: “We have a number of career professionals who come and support on female skills. And I think the camaraderie is important as well – with female skills in particular, something that really blindsided me was the number of women that took part that told us they have never met another female tradesperson.”

The multichannel strategy for HIP and Sparks is designed both to support those already in the trades but also to provide a showcase of what is available to those interested in joining it. It encompasses technical support, hints and tips and a wide range of digital resources. “We also very much focus on soft skills and business skills, and really forming a sense of community,” says Zoë. “I think anybody who has seen our social media will know we have an awful lot of fun doing what we do. We want to make the industry welcoming. We’re very lucky that we have some wonderful manufacturers that support us and our judges are completely open to bringing their 30-plus years worth of experience to the forefront, but then not always taking themselves too seriously. And that is how we consider we’re changing perceptions.”

Zoë ends with some good advice for those starting out: “Find your tribe, build your community so that you’ve got so you’ve got that support, but also don’t put too much pressure on yourself – enjoy the journey!”

Zoë and Celia will be appearing alongside other Spotlight panellists in a special discussion at InstallerSHOW on Thursday 27th June in the Climate Solutions Theatre. Register for your free ticket to InstallerSHOW, including the Spotlight panel discussion on day 3 HERE

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